I don’t remember when I saw this issue of Life Magazine. It came out on June 27, 1969, just less than a month before I was drafted and sent to Ft. Polk, Louisiana. I wasn’t doing much magazine reading beforehand and I didn’t see a magazine or newspaper for the 8 weeks I was in basic training.
I just remember the shock of seeing the issue, titled ‘American Dead in Vietnam: One Week’s Toll.’ Not for any personal fears – a young man drafted in 1969 understood that kind of fear already. But here was the reality of our times brought crashing home.
These were the 242 names the Pentagon released during the week of May 28 through June 3. It was not an extraordinary number. According to Life, it was an average number of dead for any seven-day period during this stage of the war.
For me, it wasn’t the shock of big numbers. Americans had been dying in Vietnam for some time. It was the layout Life used – page after page of small mug shots, looking all the world like some cruel high school annual. Most of the images were those brave, proud photos many kids – and they were kids – had taken after they got through basic training. Class As and a campaign hat with all the brass gleaming. Some were actual high school graduation photos. A few were candid shots form home. All of them carried those tentative smiles and open gazes toward a future out there waiting for them. They just didn’t know it would come so quickly and so hard.
These were American faces – white, black, brown – who had gone into the military for duty, the draft or boredom and all the other reasons young people became soldiers in the 1960s. They were our neighbors and classmates and friends. And here they were, all 242 displayed in orderly rows, all dead during just one more week in Vietnam.
Later, much later, after my two-year Army career ended without drama, I became convinced this one magazine had helped quicken the war’s end. There had been protests and marches galore and moratoriums to end the war. They had their purposes, I suppose, the concentrate the political and philosophical against the war. The marches and protests also helped divide the nation. Old vs young. Liberal vs conservatives. Elites vs blue collars. And the war continued.
Then came Life and its elegy for 242 young Americans. Their deaths – and their brief lives – were came with stunning harshness to homes across the country. City kids, farm kids, college graduates and pump jockeys at the local gas station. For some communities, these would be the first war dead since World War II. These weren’t slogans or little American flags for the car window. We were finally able to see the faces behind the headlines – and understand, perhaps, what toll it took on American families. We understood these were sons, husbands and loved ones who would never grow old. Their images made a lie of the reasons for the war and spoke more eloquently in their silence.
Six months after the ‘American Dead in Vietnam: A Week’s Toll’ was published, the United States began a draft lottery. In the Spring of 1970, Nixon announced a troop withdrawal of 150,000 troops. Then botched it by expanding the US war role into Cambodia. The war dragged on, after peace plans were bandied about by the US and North Vietnam. More young Americans died, the final tally of 57,158. The nation grew more divided. On January 23, 1973, Nixon announced an agreement ‘to end the war and bring peace with honor in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.’ Like so many of his political statements, it was both true and a lie.
In Life’s preface to the issue, they wrote: “It is not the intention of this article to speak for the dead. We cannot tell with any precision what they thought of the political currents which drew them across the world. Yet in a time when the numbers of Americans killed in this war – 36,000 – though far less than the Vietnamese losses, have exceeded the dead in the Korean War, when the nation continues week after week to be numbed by a three-digit statistic which is translated to direct anguish in hundreds of homes all over the country, we must pause to look into the faces.”
Today, with two more endless wars draining our resources and leaving another generation of young Americans dead and maimed, we need to reflect again that war is not a matter of how many die but who they are. And can we spare them.